Luther’s Theology of the Cross
Carl R. Trueman
No one could have expected that the Reformation would be launched by Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences in October 1517. The document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of indulgences, not its abolition. He was certainly not offering an agenda for widespread theological and ecclesiastical reform.
Indeed, he had already said much more controversial things in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factorssocial, economic, and politicalthat made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse.
The Heidelberg Disputation
Once the fuse had been lit, however, the church made a fatal error: she allowed the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, to deal with the problem as if it were a minor local difficulty. There was to be a meeting of the Order in Heidelberg in April 1518, and Luther was asked to present a series of theses outlining his theology, so that it could be assessed by his brethren. It was here, then, that the relatively bland Ninety-Five Theses gave Luther an important opportunity to articulate the theology that he had expressed in his September Disputation.
The Heidelberg Disputation is significant for two things. First, there was at least one other future Reformation giant present. This was Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, who would end his days as professor of divinity at Cambridge. A man of vast intellect and wide ecumenical vision, Bucer was to have a profound influence on a generation of Reformers, not least John Calvin. And his first taste of Reformation thinking was provided by Luther at Heidelberg in 1517. Yet, while Bucer left the disputation marveling at how Luther had attacked what the church had become, he missed the theological core of what Luther was saying. This is the second point of importance: the theology of the cross.
The Theology of the Cross
Toward the end of the disputation, Luther offered some theses which seem (in typical Luther fashion) nonsensical, or at least obscure:
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
These statements actually encapsulate the heart of Luther's theology, and a good grasp of what he means by the obscure terms and phrases they contain sheds light not just on the doctrinal content of his theology, but also on the very way that he believed theologians should think. Indeed, he is taking Paul's explosive argument from 1 Corinthians and developing it into a full theological agenda.
At the heart of his argument is his notion that human beings should not speculate about who God is or how he acts in advance of actually seeing whom he has revealed himself to be. Thus, Luther sees God's revelation of himself as axiomatic to all theology. Now, there probably is not a heretic in history who would not agree with that, because all theology presupposes the revelation of God, whether in nature, human reason, culture, or whatever.
Luther, however, had a dramatically restrictive view of revelation. God revealed himself as merciful to humanity in the Incarnation, when he manifested himself in human flesh, and the supreme moment of that revelation was on the cross at Calvary. Indeed, Luther sometimes referred enigmatically to Christ crucified as "God's backside"the point at which God appeared to be the very contradiction of all that one might reasonably have anticipated him to be.
The "theologians of glory," therefore, are those who build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be likeand, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves. The "theologians of the cross," however, are those who build their theology in the light of God's own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.
The implications of this position are revolutionary. For a start, Luther is demanding that the entire theological vocabulary be revised in light of the cross. Take for example the word power. When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the crosspower hidden in the form of weakness.
For Luther, the same procedure must be applied to other theological terms. For example, God's wisdom is demonstrated in the foolishness of the cross. Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death? We could go on, looking at such terms as life, blessing, holiness, and righteousness. Every single one must be reconceived in the light of the cross. All are important theological concepts; all are susceptible to human beings casting them in their own image; and all must be recast in the light of the cross.
This insight is one of the factors in Luther's thinking that gives his theology an inner logic and coherence. Take, for example, his understanding of justification, whereby God declares the believer to be righteous in his sight, not by virtue of any intrinsic righteousness (anything that the believer has done or acquired), but on the basis of an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ that remains external to the believer. Is this not typical of the strange but wonderful logic of the God of the cross? The person who is really unrighteous, really mired in sin, is actually declared by God to be pure and righteous! Such a truth is incomprehensible to human logic, but makes perfect sense in light of the logic of the cross.
And what of the idea of a God who comes down and loves the unlovely and the unrighteous before the objects of his love have any inclination to love him or do good? Such is incomprehensible to the theologians of glory, who assume that God is like them, like other human beings, and thus only responds to those who are intrinsically attractive or good, or who first earn his favor in some way. But the cross shows that God is not like that: against every assumption that human beings might make about who God is and how he acts, he requires no prior loveliness in the objects of his love; rather, his prior love creates that loveliness without laying down preconditions. Such a God is revealed with amazing and unexpected tenderness and beauty in the ugly and violent drama of the cross.
The Key to Christian Ethics and Experience
Luther does not restrict the theology of the cross to an objective revelation of God. He also sees it as the key to understanding Christian ethics and experience. Foundational to both is the role of faith: to the eyes of unbelief, the cross is nonsense; it is what it seems to bethe crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God. That is how the unbelieving mind interprets the crossfoolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. To the eyes opened by faith, however, the cross is seen as it really is. God is revealed in the hiddenness of the external form. And faith is understood to be a gift of God, not a power inherent in the human mind itself.
This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christthrough suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.
This argument is explosive, giving a whole new understanding of Christian authority. Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.
Great Blessings through Great Suffering
The implications of the theology of the cross for the believer do not stop there. The cross is paradigmatic for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.
This point is hard for those of us in the affluent West to swallow. For example, some years ago I lectured at a church gathering on this topic and pointed out that the cross was not simply an atonement, but a revelation of how God deals with those whom he loves. I was challenged afterwards by an individual who said that Luther's theology of the cross did not give enough weight to the fact that the cross and resurrection marked the start of the reversal of the curse, and that great blessings should thus be expected; to focus on suffering and weakness was therefore to miss the eschatological significance of Christ's ministry.
Of course, this individual had failed to apply Luther's theology of the cross as thoroughly as he should have done. All that he said was true, but he failed to understand what he was saying in light of the cross. Yes, Luther would agree, the curse is being rolled back, but that rollback is demonstrated by the fact that, thanks to the cross, evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God's will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil can also be subverted to the cause of good.
More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too. Yes, the curse is reversed; yes, blessings will flow; but who declared that these blessings have to be in accordance with the aspirations and expectations of affluent America? The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, have those who are united to him by faith any right to expect anything different?
This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.
Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was itself willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God, yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt, we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.
Luther's theology of the cross is too rich to be covered adequately in a single article, but I hope that my brief sketch above will indicate the rich vein of theological reflection which can be mined by those who reflect upon 1 Corinthians 1 and upon the dramatic antitheses between appearance and reality that are scattered throughout Scripture and marshaled with such force by Martin Luther. An antidote to sentimentality, prosperity doctrine, and an excessively worldly eschatology, this is theological gold dust. The cross is not simply the point at which God atones for sin; it is also a profound revelation of who God is and how he acts toward his creation.
The author is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author of Luther's Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers 1525–1556. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2005.